Maria Nzomo – Top scholar holds gender rights banner aloft

Best known for her tireless efforts in championing the rights of women, Professor Maria Nzomo was instrumental in influencing the gender clauses in the 2010 Constitution and is the first Kenyan woman to attain a PhD in Political Sciences. Professor Ambassador Maria Nzomo takes great pride in the role she played to get affirmative action entrenched in The Constitution of Kenya 2010.

She cut her teeth in the women’s rights movement in the 1980s after completing her postgraduate studies in Canada and returning to work as a lecturer at the University of Nairobi in 1982. While in Canada, her eyes had been opened to the reality that violence against women was not universally excused based on cultural myths. “I realised the only way women would progress in Kenya was through affirmative action,” she says of her involvement in the struggle that earned her the tag ‘the one who fights for women’. In spite of that distinction, Nzomo considers her most important role as being the mother of two sons. She thanks God for the ‘very wonderful boys’ who are in their 20s. “I’ve been a very good mother, friend and mentor to them and they haven’t let me down,” she says.

The petite scholar’s frame belies the born fighter within. It’s hard to imagine that the diplomat-cum-rights activist fought a boy as a child. “He insulted me,” she states simply. The first female director of the University of Nairobi’s Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies has held the position twice, starting with a one-year stint before being appointed Kenya’s Ambassador to Zimbabwe and High Commissioner to the Republics of Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho (2003-2006), the first female envoy to those countries. During this period, she initiated the first diplomatic newsletter, DIPNEWS, to disseminate and share information among Kenya’s diplomatic community, policymakers and the Kenyan public. Nzomo’s stint in the diplomatic arena in southern Africa was crowned when she received the Presidential Moran of the Burning Spear (MBS) award in recognition of her outstanding service to Kenya in 2005 and her elevation to a more prestigious assignment at the UN mission in 2006. “I replaced Amina (Mohammed) as Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Kenyan Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland,” says the diplomat. While in Geneva (2006-2009) she served at the World Trade Organisation and other international agencies.

The scholar-cum-diplomat is a consummate women’s rights defender. “If you ask people if they know Maria Nzomo a lot of them will tell you, ‘Oh yeah, the one who fights for women,’” she says. Her childhood stories provide an insight into this life-long crusade. Born in the early 1950s during the colonial emergency period, Nzomo grew up in a poverty- stricken family and a highly patriarchal environment, where she witnessed men beat women. Sons had no qualms about beating their mothers, a situation she was determined to change.

“I knew that knowledge made a big difference and with it, I might be able to find answers to many unanswered questions and do something about so many issues which, as a child, I could not address.” As she puts it, education was a possible “ticket out of a disempowering environment.”

Looking back, it made a difference that she set high goals for herself. To attain the level of education that she desired was not easy. Those early years are a period she would rather forget as they carry many unpleasant memories. By dint of determination and faith in God, however, she became the only girl in her class to join secondary school, albeit through bursaries. “My A- Levels were the hardest,” she says, “but I was never discouraged.” Joining the University of Nairobi in September 1971 as the only woman in her class, Nzomo attained a BA (Honours) degree in Political Science. She reveals, however, that her first choice had been to study Law, but she was not selected for the few available slots and was advised to be grateful that she was admitted to university at all. Political Science was the next best thing as it gave her a chance to understand governance, human rights and to study International Law and
related courses. And so, making lemonade out of the proverbial lemons, she embraced Political Science and went on to study the subject at postgraduate level.

The ‘token woman’ in the class of 1974 was quickly grabbed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “They had very few women and were looking for anyone with qualifications that matched the skills required by the Ministry. I happened to be more than qualified,” she recalls. Having promised herself to seek the highest possible level of education, starting a family was the last thing on her mind. Although attaining a first degree was a feat for women in those days, she egan scouting for scholarships to put another feather in her cap – a master’s degree. The budding scholar, whose stint in the civil service would be short-lived, embarked on writing and posting scholarship applications in their dozens, convinced that at the very least one was bound to bear fruit. As this was long before the computer and email era, it was a tedious and slow affair.

I realised the only way women would progress in Kenya was through affirmative action Charged with overseeing the United Nations and Americas Desk, her colleagues at Foreign Affairs marvelled at her good luck. “You’re going to be an ambassador one day,” they often remarked, unaware of her plans to pursue higher education. Just two months after graduating from the University of Nairobi, she was airborne to Canada for an MA course in Political Science at McMaster University, followed by another scholarship to pursue a PhD in Political Science and International Studies at Dalhousie University. She returned home seven years later in 1982 – “the year of the attempted coup” – with a PhD in Political Science. It was the first such degree to be awarded to a Kenyan woman, “just like Wangari Maathai a few years earlier had attained a PhD in Veterinary Anatomy,” she says.

Nzomo has authored more than 60 publications in the form of books, journal articles, book chapters and technical reports on international studies, governance, gender, human rights and civil societies in Africa. The scholar also authored the first training manuals for Kenyan women candidates seeking political office. Two of only three women to ever run for President in Kenya– Charity Ngilu in 1997 and Martha Karua in 2013 – used the manuals, she says.
Nzomo possesses the unique capacity of combining scholarship with rights activism. Due to her activist streak and lacking alternative space, she often held meetings with women in her office at the University of Nairobi. Because of this, she frequently faced the question, “Are you a scholar or an activist?” She laughs it off now, but her vocal dissent from the commonly-held view at the time that politics was men’s preserve did not win her friends. “I was even accused of being a ‘home-breaker’. Government functionaries compared me with Wangari Maathai, so I was on a watch list.”

For some 20 years, she played a key role in the struggle for constitutional reforms, especially in pushing for a comprehensive engendering of Kenya’s 2010 Constitution, which, she says, makes her efforts worthwhile. The fruit of her labour is the Constitutional clause, which also creates the National Gender and Equality Commission mandating that “no more than two-thirds of elective or public posts shall be of the same gender”. The Constitution also requires that “the State shall take legislative and other measures to implement the principle that not more than two-thirds of the members of elective or appointive bodies shall be of the same gender”. “Some of us fought so hard for that Constitution. There are certain historical disadvantages that you cannot bridge unless you introduce clear measures to help those who are historically disadvantaged through no fault of their own,” she explains. Vying for political office is out of the question for the scholar-cum-women’s rights activist “because of the nature of Kenyan politics.” Given the opportunity she would, however, consider a Cabinet appointment, since she would be judged on her performance rather than her political allegiance.

For now, the UoN Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies Director is happy to do what she loves best: learning and being challenged by the Master’s and PhD students she supervises. The professor finds inspiration from this quote by Mahatma Gandhi: “I have worshipped woman as the living embodiment of the spirit of service and sacrifice.” Aggressiveness in men, she says, is expected, and even applauded; in women, it’s not considered flattering, in spite of being necessary. “Look at Martha (Karua); she was labelled ‘the only man in Kibaki’s Cabinet’ not because of her good performance or the courage of her convictions, but because of her no-nonsense leadership style, which is viewed as masculine by patriarchs. But Martha’s ‘bare-knuckles’ leadership style did not deduct from her femininity and humaneness. She is a mother and grandmother, like many women of her generation. Kenyans need to radically change their patriarchal mind-set about women in leadership,” says Nzomo.

According to the don, the strength of a woman is evident from the fact that whereas men have someone to handle domestic things, women usually don’t, and have to multi-task. As Academic Programme Director at the Kenya National Defence College and Defence Staff College, Nzomo attributes her accomplishments to her top-level education and qualifications that opened doors for her. “I believe I got the opportunities to do the things I did because I had knowledge, which was appreciated.”

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